On choosing how to die – the ongoing debate on euthanasia

“I can do dying, but I can’t do major suffering to get there.”

As an aging baby boomer I join the debate about euthanasia or assisted suicide with a great deal of trepidation. It’s a touchy subject, and it should be.

The above quote is from Gloria Taylor, a woman living in West Kelowna, British Columbia who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a most unpleasant way to come to the end of your life. She was seeking the right to control when and how she dies.

She and others decided to fight for this right and this spring a B.C. Supreme Court ruling said the ban on euthanasia or assisted suicide in Canada is unconstitutional and gave Ottawa a year to rewrite the law. In July, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the Canadian government will appeal that ruling, saying that the law is there to protect all Canadians, including the most vulnerable; the sick, the elderly and people with disabilities.

This is an issue that affects us all and will gain even more prominence as us boomers swell the ranks of the elderly. Most of us have seen family or friends die slowly (my mother died of Alzheimer’s) and pondered the question of how we would choose to die, if we had a choice.

Euthanasia, curiously, comes from a Greek word meaning good death. Voluntary euthanasia means it is done with the consent of the person and active voluntary euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.

The term ‘assisted suicide’ is used when a person causes their own death with the assistance of a doctor. It is legal in Switzerland and in the American states of Montana, Washington and Oregon. Most jurisdictions only allow it for residents. Switzerland allows it for anyone.

Many people have said to me that they would like the right to kill themselves if suffering painfully or faced with a low quality of life. They would commit suicide. The question becomes when. At what point is your quality of life gone, and when it is, are you physically able to do anything about it? Probably not. It’s one thing to take your own life, it’s quite another to have someone do it for you at your request. This is where the line between murder and assisted suicide gets touchy.

A living will, which legally allows whomever you appoint to help decide these things if you cannot, will help. They can decline interventions to extend your life, although this can be cruel and dragged out too. Legally being starved to death, even if I’m in a coma and unaware of it, is not a way I would choose to end my days.

There are those who argue that pain and suffering are part of life, and death, and should not be interfered with. That any form of euthanasia or assisted suicide opens the door a crack, and when the pressures of overpopulation and escalating health care budgets help kick that door wide open, the elderly, sick and handicapped will be fair game. Those are valid arguments. Other jurisdictions have settled them, setting limits that the majority of the population can live with.

I think we all know that euthanasia already takes place. Sympathetic medical staff ‘accidentally’ administer overdoses, withdraw treatments or look the other way when someone helps a suffering loved one end it.

Personally, assuming I don’t get hit by a truck tomorrow, I would like the freedom to make my own decision about how and when to end my life. And if I’m at the stage when I can’t make that decision I would prefer someone who loves me and knows how I feel about it to make it for me, rather than a government or judge. But it is not an easy decision. This is an issue we all need to discuss.

acryderman@reddeerexpress.com

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